The Myth of an Afterlife 2015

Ed. Michael Martin and Keith Augustine, Rowman & Littlefield, pp 393-403

Chapter 24

Out-of-Body Experiences are not Evidence for Survival

Susan Blackmore

This chapter is excerpted from my article Blackmore,S.J. 1983d Are out-of-the-body experiences evidence for survival? Anabiosis 3 137-155

We may now tackle the question of what bearing the out-of-body experience (OBE) has on the evidence for survival. There are two steps here. First is the question of whether anything leaves the body in an OBE. That question is crucial because if OBEs are to be considered evidence for survival, it is necessary (though not sufficient, of course) to show that something leaves the body. Second is the question of whether that something could survive the death of the physical body.

There are two major approaches to answering those questions. One involves logical and philosophical arguments; the other, empirical evidence. I shall consider each in turn.

First, why do I reject the argument from experience out of hand? The main reason is that it involves quite unwarranted leaps from what the experience feels like to a particular interpretation. Clearly, in most OBEs the body is alive and functioning during the experience, and it is unjustified to say that the “real me” was “out” or that it did not depend on the body. I know how much it feels as though the body is nothing, but that is no reason for assuming that it is. I shall mention later cases in which the brain may not have been functioning, but for the most part it is clear that it could have been responsible for the experience. The big question becomes, can the whole experience be accounted for by imagination, memory, and so on, or does something actually leave the body?

The main problem to face is conceiving of anything that could do so. The “whatever it is” must not only be capable of leaving the body, but must be able to move, to perceive at a distance, and to transmit the results back to the body. That is a very tall order. If we conceive of some sort of pseudophysical entity doing all of that, then we must face all of the problems of energy transmission from place to place, and movement and perception without detection.

  1. A. H. Rushton (1976) “pointed out one problem, that in order to see, the ‘double’ must pick up light, if it picks up light, it must be opaque, and hence must be visible.” In various forms that argument is compelling because perception necessarily involves interaction with the environment. Of course the interaction need not involve light, and one could postulate some kind of interaction that was hard to detect. Nevertheless, it should in principle be detectable. The problem may not be insoluble, but it is a real problem.

We must next explain how information gets from the distant entity back to the body, and that raises all of the problems that psychical researchers and parapsychologists have been grappling with so unsuccessfully for so long.

To get away from those kinds of problems, many have preferred to argue that the double is an astral body and that it travels in the astral, not physical, world. That maneuver leads to either of two suggestions. One may postulate an astral world that duplicates the physical and so face problems of communication between astral and physical (much like mind-body problems). Or one may have a kind of astral world with no connection with the physical. In that case OBEs could not involve travel in the physical world and can be seen as private fantasies. (As I shall try to show later, that may in fact be a more interesting result, but it is not what is usually meant by astral projection and does not really entail anything leaving the body.)

To escape from all of these problems, some people (see Rogo, 1978) have resorted to suggesting that what leaves the body is just consciousness, or just a perceiving point. However, it seems very hard to define consciousness in any way that allows it to do the job required in an OBE. Consciousness is not normally considered to be the kind of thing that has a location at all, and to expect it to be located outside of the body and capable of perceiving, moving, and so on is to distort any normally recognized notion of consciousness unacceptably far. The final option, of saying that all that leaves is a perceiving point, also fails. The point is defined only by where it is perceiving from. One of the very few things we know for certain about the OBE is that people often make errors in what they see. Whether they are sometimes correct is in dispute, but that they are often wrong is not. Clearly, then, the hypothetical perceiving point hits a problem. It seems to be at a rather distorted version of a point rather than at any actual place, so in what sense can it be said to have left the body or indeed to exist at all?

In my opinion all attempts to find something that could leave the body in an OBE fail on theoretical grounds. For that reason I prefer explanations of the OBE that do not involve anything leaving the body; psychological theories of the OBE, for example. If nothing leaves the body in an OBE, then there is nothing to survive, and the OBE cannot be cited as evidence for survival.

However, I am quite prepared to believe that my arguments are wrong. One can read many philosophical works of fifty years ago expressing cogent reasons why one could never know that someone was dreaming, and could never answer such questions as how long dreams take, and whether babies dream. The arguments may have lost none of their force. However, there are few who would deny the importance of the progress in the psychology of dreaming that took place when objective correlates of dream reporting were discovered. And we have now been able to answer those awkward questions, at least to some extent. I mention that because I do believe that however convincing are my arguments against anything leaving the body, that is no justification for refusing to look at the evidence. It might still be the case that there was evidence that forced me to say, “I can’t believe it, it can’t be true, but the evidence suggests it.” So is there any such evidence?

I shall consider any evidence that suggests that something leaves the body. There are at least three types. First, there is evidence that during OBEs people can see things at a distance without using the recognized senses (i.e., using extrasensory perception [ESP]). Secondly, there is evidence that the double or astral body can be detected. And finally, there is evidence from OBEs occurring near death. I shall consider each in turn.

In each case we may consider both anecdotal and experimental evidence. The spontaneous-case, or anecdotal, evidence is in some ways the most interesting and persuasive, but it is also the most problematic. In any case in which someone reports out-of-body vision, there are problems of collecting the reports, the vagaries and distortions of human memory, the difficulty of finding relevant witnesses and checking the details claimed, and the problems of eliminating expectation, sensory cues, and even fraud.

A case that illustrates all of these problems is that most famous of spontaneous OBE cases, the Wilmot case (Myers, 1903). Mr. Wilmot was travelling on a steamship from Liverpool to New York in 1863. As the story goes, his wife was worried because there was a severe storm at sea. She had an OBE and travelled to her husband’s ship. There she saw him lying in his stateroom, and she went in and kissed him before returning home. Mr. Wilmot, meanwhile, was sleeping well for the first time in nine or ten days at sea, and dreamed he saw his wife come to his cabin. In the morning he was amazed to find that his own vision of her had been shared by his roommate, who chastised him for having a lady in his room at night. Apparently they had both seen Mrs. Wilmot, and she had seen them. On arriving home, Mr. Wilmot was asked by his wife if he had received a visit from her on the night in question (Myers, 1903).

This story sounds very convincing until you look a little further. It is now not possible to talk to the people concerned, of course, and I have found that there are no passenger lists or plans of the ship in existence. However, just reading the reports raises a host of questions. The whole story depends on the coincidence of Mr. Wilmot’s and his companion’s visions with the experience of Mrs.Wilmot. However, we are told all three sides of the coincidence by none other than Mr. Wilmot himself, and he had been suffering from days of seasickness and sleeplessness at the time. That reduces its value, but worse still is that Mrs. Wilmot never reported having had an OBE at all. Mr. Wilmot reported that she was worried and seemed to go out to seek him. But in her own report she only alludes briefly to her “dream,” and she gives no description of what she saw. She says that she thinks that she told her mother about it the next morning, but there is no report from her mother. By the time the case was written up in 1889, the roommate was dead and unable to give his account. It seems to me that this case does not bear close scrutiny. I am not trying to say that it is worthless—it is a very interesting story—just that it is not the kind of evidence that would convince a reasonable person of the existence of accurate out-of-body vision, or of the accurate detection of a person in the out-of-body state.

So where do we look for more solid evidence? We can look for more modern cases. I once presented one myself (Blackmore, 1982c). A Canadian architect claimed to have visited London, and described in detail the houses he saw in a certain area of Fulham. Apparently he had asked an English colleague of his about that particular area of London, and the colleague had “proceeded to describe the character of the streets, the buildings, the style, the building setbacks and entrance yards—all exactly as I had seen them!” (p. 3). It seemed an exciting case and was easy enough to check, but as soon as I did I found that there are no houses even remotely fitting the description in Fulham. Like so many other cases, this one does not seem to stand up to examination. The main lesson we have to learn, I believe, is that nothing has changed. A hundred or so years has not produced the evidence, and yet we go on looking for it in the same old ways. Will we never learn?

Some would say that the experimental evidence is far stronger. There is a little such evidence from early this century. For example, hypnotized mediums were asked to “exteriorize” their doubles, and the doubles were then supposed to be able to see things presented before their eyes, while the mediums could not see them. The same was done with smells, tastes, and touch, but the most elementary precautions against normal perception were not taken, and those experiments cannot be considered seriously (see Blackmore, 1982a).

For a long time nothing along experimental lines was attempted, and then over fifty years ago laboratory research on OBEs began. Charles Tart (1967, 1968) was the first to test a subject who claimed to be able to have an OBE at will in the laboratory. Tart set up an experiment in which the subject was to lie on a bed, above which was a shelf with a five-digit number on it. The subject’s aim was to see the number when out of his or her body. Robert Monroe (well known for his book Journeys Out of the Body, 1971) was the subject on nine occasions but failed to see the number at all. Then a girl referred to as Miss Z tried and, on her fourth and last attempt, managed not only to have an OBE but to see the number and report it correctly. That seemed to be a great breakthrough. One of the most persistent problems in parapsychology is that results are easy to collect, but terribly unreliable. Here it seemed that although it was hard to get anyone to see the number, once seen it was seen correctly. That would be a great advance if it could be repeated and would put out-of-body vision in a class altogether different from “normal” ESP. The hope, however, was short-lived. Miss Z was unable to come to the laboratory any more, and no other subject has ever achieved that accuracy again. It is also a pity that the number was in the same room as the subject, because however unlikely it seems to be (and Tart [1967, 1968] has argued that it is very unlikely), it is possible that she saw the number normally. If the result cannot be repeated, we shall never know for certain.

Subsequent experiments of the same kind (e.g., Osis, 1974; Mitchell, 1981; Osis & McCormick, 1980) have produced results much like so many others in parapsychology. That is, they are sometimes suggestively above chance, but not much more than that.

Those experiments raise an additional tricky question about the interpretation of out-of-body vision. Even if people could see at a distance during OBEs, that is not necessarily evidence that something leaves. After all, they could be using ESP. The ESP problem has worried parapsychologists since modern research on OBEs began some fifty years ago. The problem is how to distinguish between ESP and out-of-body vision. In some sense, it is logically impossible. ESP is defined negatively and therefore can never be ruled out. However, some ingenious experiments have been designed to try.

Karlis Osis (1975) designed the “optical-image device”: a box containing a mass of pictures, colored filters, and mirrors. Looking in through the lid, one would see all of these in a jumble, but looking in through the viewing hole, one sees a particular picture of a certain color appearing in one of four quadrants. Osis’ subject, Alex Tanous, was asked to try to travel, during an OBE, to a distant room and to look into the optical-image device. The idea was that if he “saw” the right picture, he must have been using localized viewing rather than generalized ESP. In fact the results were inconclusive. Osis (1975) claimed that they supported the hypothesis of localized viewing, but it was only by marginal effects. And in any case one could never be sure that ESP could not operate like localized viewing. We simply know too little about the workings of ESP.

So what are we to conclude? I genuinely believe that the fairest and most reasonable interpretation is to say that out-of-body vision has been tested and has not been found. Here many others certainly disagree with me, but I can only present the conclusion that seems to me to fit the evidence best.

One last thing to point out is how very little the research has changed in all these years. Over one hundred years ago Frederic W. H. Myers (1903) had a good idea of what would be considered acceptable evidence. Psychical researchers twenty and thirty years after his death were still looking for it and using basically similar methodology. In spite of advances in experimental design, we are still using it today; that is, testing whether people can see some concealed object or target at a distance while having an OBE. It may be considered a mark of a progressive science that the problems it tackles change as it develops. In Imre Lakatos’ (1978) terms, there is a progressive problemshift. By this criterion, research on OBEs has not progressed at all in over a hundred years. I think it is about time it did.

Much the same criticism can be leveled at research of the second type; that is, the attempts to detect the double. Early in the twentieth century the doubles of hypnotized mediums were asked to sit on weighing scales and to ring electric bells and were even photographed (see Blackmore, 1982a). However, when the research methods were improved, the early exciting results disappeared. More recently, a sophisticated apparatus has been used to try to detect the presence of a double or astral body while a subject is having an OBE in a different room. The most notable of that research was a long series with the subject Blue Harary at the Psychical Research Foundation. Humans, animals, and a mass of different physical systems were used, but the final conclusion was, “Overall, no detectors were able to maintain a consistent responsiveness of the sort that would indicate any true detection of an extended aspect of the self” (Morris et al., 1978, p. 1).

There have been some indications of detectability. For example, in one of the experiments, Blue Harary was apparently able to influence the behavior of one of his two pet kittens. The kitten meowed and moved significantly less when Harary was having an OBE as compared with control periods. Some have seen that as evidence that the double left the body, but it depends on a small statistical effect with one of two kittens, and it was not repeatable. Also there still remains the problem that it could have been ESP or psychokinesis between man and cat. Osis and Donna McCormick (1980) claimed to have detected Alex Tanous’ out-of-body presence while he was engaged in a perceptual task. Strain gauges were placed near the optical-image device, and they showed greater activation on trials when he correctly perceived the target in the box than on those when he was wrong. They argued that in some sense he was more exteriorized on those trials and unintentionally affected the strain gauges. I have pointed out (Blackmore, 1981) that overall the results of the perceptual task were equal to those expected by chance. So if he was “really there” on hit trials, there must have been psi-missing on the other trials. Julian Isaacs (1981) has also noted problems with the apparatus used.

Many people would argue with my conclusion that the evidence is not good enough. For example, D. Scott Rogo (personal communication, 1982) has argued that if I had been at the experiment with the kitten and seen its behavior, I would “know” that it had detected Harary’s presence. I can only say that I wish I had been there to see for myself. But going on the basis of published findings, I think that the only fair conclusion is that of Robert Morris, et al. (1978). The out-of-body “whatever it is” seems to be undetectable as yet.

The third type of evidence concerns OBEs occurring near death. It has long been known that people approaching death report visions of many kinds, and these visions can include OBEs. Research into near-death experiences (NDEs), from Raymond Moody’s (1975) pioneering work to subsequent research by Kenneth Ring (1980) and Michael Sabom (1982), has made it clear that the OBE is an important and frequent constituent of the NDE. Whether OBEs occurring near death are the same phenomenon as OBEs occurring under other circumstances is not yet clear. However, they are certainly similar enough to treat as one until we have any evidence to the contrary.

Other components of the “typical” NDE include roaring noises in the ears, the experience of rushing along a tunnel (like my tunnel of trees), seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, meeting with dead relatives or religious beings, and glimpsing another world. The big question is, of course, whether all NDEs could be creations of the dying brain in its last moments, or whether they are what they seem, a prelude to, and glimpse of, the world to come.

This is not the place to consider such evidence in detail, but I should point out the few suggestions that something paranormal may be involved. In particular Sabom (1982) has presented evidence that people having NDEs while unconscious and unresponsive have correctly reported details of medical procedures and apparatus that they could not possibly have known about. In addition he found that cardiac patients who had not had an NDE were unable to imagine such scenes in the same accurate and convincing way. However, these patients did not have the auditory and other information that may be available to people coming close to death, so the comparison is not as fair as it first appears. The importance of the additional auditory information is something to be determined by future research.

I believe it is too early to say whether near-death experiencers can actually see things paranormally. There is certainly evidence in that direction, but it is not clear-cut, and we shall have to await the results of future work to find out whether or not it stands the test of time. However, it may be useful at this stage to consider what sort of evidence would be convincing. First, there could be better evidence for paranormal perception during NDEs; if that is obtained, then I would be forced to reconsider my position. But it would still be a long step to concluding that OBEs provide evidence for survival. We would still have to deal with the thorny question of ruling out ESP as an alternative explanation, even to conclude that something leaves the body. And even that is only the first step.

The second is to ask whether that “something” could survive death or operate without a physical body. One way of approaching the problem is to ask whether NDEs can occur when brain activity has ceased. If a complex structured experience occurs, involves the paranormal acquisition of information, and could be shown to occur at a time when there was little or no brain activity, then that would strongly challenge any purely cognitive or psychological account of the experience. The ability to collect that kind of evidence is in sight, and it would be important if found. However, I must add that even that still would not get around the problem that anyone who can tell us about his or her NDE was not actually dead at the time. Awkward problems like that beset the search for survival evidence at every turn.



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